Organized Confusion | “Pirates of Penzance” @ Pasadena Playhouse

Pirates of Penzance (Pasadena Playhouse)I’ve enjoyed the music and the story of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Pirates of Penzance ever since I saw the Los Angeles production of the New York Shakespeare Festival version in 1981, with Pam Dawber, Andy Gibb, Barry Bostwick, and Jo Anne Worley in the roles made famous in New York by Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Kevin Kline, and Estelle Parsons. I’ve listened to the New York cast album of that show until it was etched in my brain. So when I learned that the The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) was presenting Pirates, my interest was peaked — peaked enough to overcome a slight bias I’ve had against going to the Playhouse since the bankruptcy in 2010 and the style of the Sheldon Epps era (note: this wasn’t against the few shows I’ve seen; more against just getting tickets and potentially subscribing). So I started exploring tickets…

… and I quickly discovered that, just as the NYSF version of Pirates was very much unlike your father’s D’Oyly Carte operetta ; this version of Pirates was going to be very much unlike my generation’s NYSF version. Oh, the basic story was the same, but the staging — it was staging for a non-traditional generation. This was made clear when booking tickets, and I learned that this wasn’t a proscenium show (and the Playhouse is a proscenium theatre). This show was being advertised as a beach party; all of the traditional seats in the theatre were not being used. The action would take place in the audience, and there would be seating in and around the stage, with bleachers around the action. What?!?!?!?‽‽‽ Totally unsure of where I might be sitting, we booked tickets in what was being called the Promenade. We even got tickets with a seat number and everything. You can see the warped seating chart a little lower down in this writeup. The top is the back of the actual stage; the bottom is the entrance to the auditorium.

We saw the show yesterday afternoon, and discovered what they had done to the theatre. They had erected a platform over most of the normal seating and the stage. There were bleachers on the side and on the stage, with a dock structure and a raised platform with a kiddie pool over what would be approximately rows L-N of the audience. There was a tiki bar serving drinks throughout the show, and a few benches surrounding ball pits filled with beach balls. The atmosphere was fun and frivolity, and … yes … this was a beach party. That “Promenade” seat? Those seats were around and on the stage — yes, you could sit anywhere that wasn’t a formal seat with a back.  On a bench. On the dock. On the floor. In a kiddie pool. You just had to be prepared for an actor to point and you and move you out of the way, and you could just go and sit anywhere else. It was organized mayhem, unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the Pasadena Playhouse (which is normally quite staid) — and almost unlike anything I’ve seen in any other theatre (we’ll we did sit on the stage in La Mirada’s Carrie, but that was very different). During the show, the actors were in and around you, standing directly in front of you, interacting with the audience, playing with the kids, making audience part of the actors at times. Before the show, they were wandering around, playing all sorts of songs (including TMBG), and throwing balls at the audience, and generally having a fun time.

Pirates Seating ChartSo as the show started we had no idea what to expect. We were sitting on a bench next to a ball pit near the dock (essentially, just to the right of the words “The Dock” on the image to your right, near the L of the dock). There are times we moved. There are times the performers were right next to us. It was non-traditional, and it was a hoot.

The performance itself stuck to the traditional Pirates narrative; which is summarized in a shorter form here; and which R&H licensing summarizes as “When the hero of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE was but a boy, his father instructed his nurse to have him apprenticed as a pilot. She thought he said ‘pirate’ and thus the zany troubles began.” Some songs were converted to recitative; and of course the songs added from other shows for the NYSF version weren’t there. The performance ran just about 80 minutes, with one one-minute (yes, one-minute) intermission. There were a few interpolations of modern songs that worked really, really well.

This truly was organized, improvised, mayhem. But the best mayhem is well-planned, and so credit here goes to Sean Graney (FB), the director (and artistic director of The Hypocrites (FB), who developed this show); Andra Velis Simon (FB), the musical director; Katie Spelman (FB), the choreographer; Miranda Anderson (FB); the production stage manager; and Nikki Hyde (FB), the assistant stage manager. I include the latter two because they were on stage, dressed as life-guards, making sure the action went where it was supposed to go. This team kept the show on focus and moving forward, in and around the great distraction that an unpredictable audience could be.

As for the actors, they had an even harder job, for they were also the orchestra — using almost any instrument you can think of. Guitars, banjos, ukuleles (I don’t think a ukulele has been on stage at the Playhouse since Radio Gals in 1992), spoons, clarinets, flutes, mandolins, fiddles, saws, accordions …. you get the idea. There was also sharing of roles: the actress playing Mabel also played Ruth, and both the daughters and the pirates, at times, became the police officers. The cast consisted of Doug Pawlik (FB) [Freddy]; Shawn Pfatsch [Pirate King, Major GeneralUS]; Matt Kahler (FB) [Major General]; Dana Omar (FB) [Ruth / Mabel]; Leslie Ann Sheppard (★FBFB); [Daughter, Ruth/MabelUS]; Amanda Raquel Martinez [Daughter]; Tina Muñoz-Pandya (FB[Daughter]; Lauren Vogel (FB) [Pirate]; Mario Aivazian (FB) [Pirate, Pirate KingUS, FreddyUS]; and Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo (FB) [Pirate]. All of them were great and clearly having the time of their life (and loving the interaction with the audience). A few notes and thoughts: Pawlik gave Freddy just the right amount of youthful naivete and bravado to make things work; Pfatsch kept evoking Bostwick/Kline in my head, but he played with the role in a very different way that was a joy to see. Kahler handled Modern Major General well, and I loved the interstitial from the daughter. I liked Omar’s dual characterization and her switching back and forth; she had a lovely voice — plus, she played the banjo and the accordion — a skill that will earn her tens and tens of dollars (and she better keep her car locked). The daughters were cute (especially with the moustaches), and I wish I had known that Sheppard was a knitter (my wife had her knitting there). Of the pirates, my eye was drawn to Vogel both for her voice and musical skills, as well as how she was having fun playing with her role. But all of these actors were just great and a joy to watch.

I’ll also note that this is one of the few productions I’ve seen at the Playhouse that didn’t have a 100% Equity cast; I don’t know if they are getting Equity cards from this show. AEA is a bit controversial here in Los Angeles with what they did to the intimate theatre scene, and I’m hearing rumblings they are going after membership companies next (with plans to have local minimum wage laws take precedence over AEA agreements/codes). I’m glad I’m not an actor trying to decide what to do about my union.

Finally, turning to the technical and production side: Tom Burch‘s scenic design transformed the Playhouse, and was remarkably inventive with the docks, benches, pools, and everything else. I can’t think of a similar transformation of the venue in all the years we were there (going back to 1989). Incredible. This worked well with Maria DeFabo Akin (FB)’s properties design — not only all the beach balls and other set accouterments, but clever little tricks to signal characters, the cigarette holders, the rubber ducks, and such. Also supporting this was Alison Siple (FB)’s costume design; no credits were provided for the wig design that transformed Mabel. From down where we sat, Kevin O’Donnell (FB)’s sound design worked well; the LA Times indicated there might be a sound problem in the rafters of the bleachers. We didn’t see that. Heather Gilbert (FB)’s lighting design established the mood well. This version of Pirates was adapted by Sean Graney (FB), and co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell (FB). Other credits: Joe Will [General Manager]; Chris Cook [Production Manager]; Brad Enlow (FB) [Technical Director]; and Davidson & Choy Publicity (FB) [Press Representative]Pirates of Penzance was presented/produced by The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) , Danny Feldman (Producing Artistic Director) in association with The Hypocrites (FB).

Pirates of Penzance has been extended at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), now closing on February 25. Tickets are available through the Playhouse box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar, TodayTix, or LA Stage Tix. This show is a lot of fun and you’ll have a wonderful time — just don’t expect your father’s stuffy old theatre. Bring the kids and they’ll have a lot of fun as well — it is a great introduction to theatre in an environment where they don’t have to sit absolutely still.

This show has certainly made me rethink what I think about the Playhouse; I think we’ll be back more often. Certainly, with the dormancy of the Colony Theatre, we’ve been trying to find an affordable mid-size theatre. When we left the Playhouse, tickets were over $1000 per season, which was ridiculous. Their new options for membership certainly look more affordable; now they just need a reliable show mix.

Speaking of show mixes: The Ahmanson has added Ain’t Too Proud, a musical on the Temptations, to their 2018/2019 season, and they still have two shows to announce (see the end of the paragraph). It is looking even more likely that we’ll add that subscription, if we can get the cheap seats. As for the Pantages, they announce on Tuesday. As I wrote in my Aladdin writeup: We already know that Dear Even HansenCome From AwayFalsettos, and The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). What does that leave for the Pantages, as they don’t produce their own. Here are my guesses: BandstandAnastasia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are highly likely; so is the Miss Saigon revival. So would Groundhog Day, except they just cancelled their tour. If A Bronx Tale had announced a tour, it would also be likely. Ditto for Hello Dolly. Lesser possibilities are Amazing Grace, or A Night with Janis Joplin. In terms of potential retreads, I could see them bringing in the current Les Miz tour, and possibly the Fiddler on the Roof,  Lion King or Wicked tours, if they are still on the road. Also known to be going on tour/on tour, and thus possibilities for retreads, are Cats and Phantom, as they will draw in crowds and haven’t been in LA recently. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 has announced a tour, but I think the Pantages is too large for them. I could see them doing the Ahmanson. As for the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), which has two slots to announce, I predict that one will be a show in development, and the other will either be Natasha, Pierre, … , or some form of dance or ballet, like the Matthew Bourne stuff that they’ve done recently.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically,  Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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Better Warn the Pantages….

Cabrillo Userpicuserpic=colonyuserpic=repeastI’m three for three.

All three of the theaters at which I subscribed at the end of 2015 have gone dark or belly up.

  • REP just went silent; there have been no newsletters or messages to subscribers since December. A 2016 season was never announced. An old message on the grapevine said they might be back in August. We’ll see.
  • The Colony Theatre announced they were cancelling the last two shows of their seasons, and there was no prognosis for the future. One could “donate” the remainder of the tickets for a tax write-off, or wait to see if something emerges. No offers of refunds. At least the Colony had the decency to tell subscribers before the media.
  • Cabrillo Music Theatre announced today that they were closing up shop at the Civic Arts Plaza at the end of this season. The next season was cancelled, and the future is unknown. The TO Civic Arts Plaza will be refunding subscriptions and donations. They informed the media and Facebook before they sent the mail to subscribers.

First, someone better warn the Pantages — we just subscribed there. It also makes me think twice about subscribing at the Pasadena Playhouse: it looks like companies that have come out of financial problems remain shaky and unsteady. and Pasadena is only a few years out.

So here’s my question: We traditionally have had three subscriptions: one intimate, one mid-size, and one large. Arguably, the large is now the Pantages. So where should we consider for the intimate and the mid-size? I’ve got my ideas, but I’d like to hear your suggestions.

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Finding Acceptance 👗 “Casa Valentina” @ Pasadena Playhouse

Casa Valentina (Pasadena Playhouse)userpic=pasadena-playhouseIn the last two years, we’ve seen remarkable strides in the acceptance arena. We’ve seen homosexuals get the right to be married; we’ve been able to observe the transformation of Wheaties Box Heroes from one gender to the other. We’ve seen acceptance of a wide range of sexual preference in society, from no preference at all (asexual) to traditional preference to non-traditional preferences. We’ve seen similar understanding (perhaps not full acceptance yet) of the full range of gender identities. But this hasn’t been comfortable for many; arguably, many wish for those simpler days when the roles and nature of the sexes were much more separate, and those roles and orientations that went against “what nature intended” were best hidden from sight.

The play Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein (FB), officially opening tonight for a run through April 10, 2016 at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) (which we saw last night) explores those days. It is based upon the true story of Casa Susana, a resort that existed in the Catskill Mountains of New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. The resort catered to men who wanted to release the girl within; in other words, it provided heterosexual men a place where they could endulge their desire to dress as women.  This is an era when homosexuality was firmly in the closet, and any inkling of transvestism except as humor tended to be an offense that could land you in jail. The genders, for the most part, were clearly distinct (and God meant them to be that way).

In the play, George (Valentina) and his wife Rita are the proprietors of Chevalier d’Eon, a resort in the Catskills catering to men who like to dress as women. We meet them when a first-timer, Jonathan, arrives for the weekend. He is greeted by Rita and Bessie (Albert), a large friendly girl. Both welcome him, and Bessie helps him get over his fear of transformation into his alter ego, Miranda. We shortly learn that this is a weekend when most of the regulars are present, because there is another special first time guest: Charlotte (Isadore). George arrives home, and during his transformation into Valentina provides more information. Charlotte is from California and is the publisher of a transvestite magazine for which Valentina regularly writes articles. Charlotte has an announcement that could be the savior of George, Rita, and the resort.  George also discusses with Rita the reason he arrived late: he was being questioned by the postal inspectors about an envelope of pictures of naked cross-dressing men that had been addressed to him. This worries Rita, and she asks him to discuss it with another of that weekend’s guests, Amy (The Judge).

Soon the other guests have arrived — Gloria (Michael) and Theodore (Terry) — and it is time for the announcement. Their informal sorority was going legit. Charlotte had incorporated it as a non-profit in California, and he just needed their legal (birth names) on a form to sign as officers. Discussion of the risks of this uncover that they are signing a second statement: that they are not homosexuals. It turns out that Charlotte is a strong advocate for transvestites and wants them to be accepted in society. To do this, he believes, they must disassociate themselves from the homosexual cross-dressers. He says something to the effect of: in 50 years, society will broadly accept the cross-dresser, while homosexuals will still be on the outside. Quite a telling line.  This requirement — to disavow homosexuals — essentially splits the group. I won’t go into the dynamics from there as it would spoil the story.

This notion — of hetrosexual transvestites — provides some of the most interesting discussions and characters of the story. Much of this centers around Rita, the wife of Valentina and the only GG (genuine girl) on stage for much of the show. What is her relationship to George? What is the relationships of the other characters with their wives? Through exploration of those questions, we begin to see the nature of transvestite relationship: the distinction between the relationship between the man and “the girl within” and their spouses.

All of this is told — as would be expected from Firestein — through loads of extremely humorous lines. This is a very funny play, as humor often comes from great pain. I should note the humor is not from the cross-dressing (as those who recall Milton Bearle or Flip Wilson might recall), but from commentary on life itself.

As I left the play, I had quite a few observations and “compare and contrasts” going through my head. The first was with the musical Dogfight, which we had seen earlier this year.  In the first half of Dogfight, the notion of Marines competing to find the ugliest woman, and possibly bed her against her will, just grated against today’s mores against non-consensual sex and how we treat women. Similarly, the notions expressed in Casa Valentina against cross-dressing and homosexuality grate against where society is today: where gays are accepted, and transgender has come out of the closet into something closer to a cultural norm.

The second comparison, which was related to the first, was seeing Casa Valentina in a triangle with two other shows: Feirstein’s Kinky Boots and the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Unlike what was hypothesized in the play, homosexuality has not remained on the outside. In much of the country, homosexuals are completely accepted. It is out in the open and dramatized on commercial TV. As for transvestites: although some still hold the view that many are gay, the efforts of the transgender movement has brought out into the open that some see themselves as female: women trapped in a male body. But this play doesn’t concern either of those: it deals with men with a clear male gender identity and clear heterosexuality just wanting to dress as women. In society today, there’s only one way such men are accepted: as drag queens. Does society accept men who just cross-dress and pass? Have we reached the To Wan Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar level? I’m not sure were there yet. Places like Casa Valentina no longer need to exist… or do they?

A final observation has to do with the ending, which is somewhat sudden and on an odd note. The play ends with a discussion between Rita and George about the nature of their relationship, and how it might differ from the relationship between George and Valentina. Rita knows she is George’s wife, but what is she to Valentina. The answer disturbs her, and we end the show with Rita slumped at the table, head in her hands.  It raises the question about how all this looks from the wives of such men: there is acceptance, but what is the relationship. Could be an interesting character study.

Overall, what is the impact of the story of Casa Valentina? On the surface, this is a very funny show. It is possible that the surface level is all that was meant. But I think the show has a deeper takeaway: it makes a statement about how society has grown and changes, and how what we predict might be the direction of grown might be very different from what actually happens. It demonstrates the power that fear of discovery can have, and makes us realize that we still have a ways to go for full acceptance. Lastly, it raises wonderful questions about the nature of our relationships: our relationship to the facets of our personality, as well as our relationships to our spouses and our friends.

Director David Lee leads the actors to a very natural performance.  He lets the actors draw the humor from the words, and doesn’t draw humor from the costumes. This leads to a very easygoing and humorous show. He has also worked to design the show around a gigantic house as opposed to a flat stage. I believe this amplifies the closeness of the quarters and the closeness of the men. It is a different way of staging the show from the pictures I have seen of other productions.

The actors themselves are excellent. I think the most interesting was Valerie Mahaffey (FB)’s Rita. There was some hidden depth to her character that came off through her performance that was fascinating. Just seeing her in relationship with the men and their girl alter-egos was fascinating. She was part wife, part sister, part confidant, part girl friend. A multilevel complex character, well portrayed.

I also enjoyed the performance of Raymond McAnally (FB; FB Actor Page) as Albert/Bessie.  When compared to the other actors, I think he inhabited his girl most completely. There was no sense that there was a man under the frock: this was a loving, open girl who was having fun and just being herself. This was a very open portrayal that made the character very accessible to the audience.

Christian Clemenson‘s Charlotte/Isadore perhaps did the best “crossing”: her portrayal of Charlotte was seamlessly female, and was a fascinating character to watch in her portrayal and her passion.

As for the other “girls” in the cast — James Snyder (FB)’s Jonathan/Miranda, Robert Mammana (FB)’s George/Valentina, Mark Jude Sullivan (FB)’s Michael/Gloria, Lawrence Pressman (FB)’s Theodore/Terry, and John Vickery (FB)’s The Judge/Amy — I’m trying to think if there are any portrayals that stick out in my mind… and there aren’t. They generally came across as men dressing as women and playing their characters. They were good, but none had that special something that transcended the line between the man and the girl.

Rounding out the cast was Nike Doukas as Eleanor, the Judge’s daughter, who only appeared in one scene. The understudies are Matthew Magnusson (FB) (Michael/Gloria, Jonathan/Miranda), Mark Capri (FB) (The Judge/Amy, Theodore/Terry, Albert/Bessie), and Sean Smith (FB) (George/Valentina, Charlotte/Isadore).

Turning to the production and creative team: The small amount of choreography in the show was provided by Mark Esposito; what was there worked well. The scenic design by Tom Buderwitz was mentioned previously: a gigantic house on a turntable that rotated to bring to the fore various rooms and locations. It worked well, but it was interesting following the actors through the rooms. The costumes (by Kate Bergh (FB)) and wigs (by Rick Geyer) were a key to this show: they worked well on their characters and did an excellent job of creating the illusion of femininity (or at least men dressing as women). The lighting was by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) and was up to his usual excellent standards. The sound design was by Philip G. Allen and consisted primarily of sound effects and recorded music, which worked well. Remaining technical and production credits: Mike Mahaffey (FB) — Fight Choreographer; Jeff Greenberg Casting — Casting; Jill Gold — Production Stage Manager; Julie Ann Renfro — Assistant Stage Manager; Joe Witt — General Manager; Christopher Cook — Production Manager; Brad Enlow — Technical Director. Sheldon Epps is the Artistic Director of the Pasadena Playhouse.

Casa Valentina continues at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) through April 10. Tickets are available through the Pasadena Playhouse website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. I think this show is worth seeing.

The Pasadena Playhouse has announced their 2016-2017 season, and I’ve gone over it here. It may be worth subscribing, but I need to see their pricing. In the past, Playhouse season pricing has been expensive, and Goldstar has been the better option.

* 🎭 🎭 🎭 *

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birdies) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20.  The last weekend of March brings “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on Saturday, followed by A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB) on Sunday.  April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). We’re also considering the Voices/Rising concert from Muse/ique on April 3 in Alhambra. We have a mid-week concert of the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 7, followed by “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 10. The next weekend’s theatre is on Thursday, because the weekend brings our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). The Thursday show is Stella’s Last J-Date at the Whitefire Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend in April is is Pesach, but the Indie Chi Productions dark comedy Dinner at Home Between Deaths at the Odyssey Theatre (FB) sounded so interesting I’ve booked Sunday tickets. The last weekend of April has a hold date for The Boy from Oz at the Celebration Theatre (FB). May starts with a hold date for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). We then run off to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we may squeeze in a show: the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB) is doing The Boy from Oz (if we miss it at the Celebration), but otherwise the pickings and concerts are bare. May 21 has a hold for Los Angeles: Then and Now, a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has holds for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB). As for June? It’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve started to hold dates for the following shows: All Aboard the Marriage HearseAll The Best Killers are LibrariansQaddafi’s Cook — Living in Hell, Cooking for the DevilSqueeze My CansTell Me On A Sunday   Toxic Avenger: The Musical  ✨. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.

 

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season (Pasadena Playhouse) 🎭 Other Theatre News

userpic=theatre2Some weeks the news chum doesn’t theme, and you get stew at the end of the week. Other weeks, you get a multicourse tasty meal. This week is the latter. For our first course, some theatre news:

🎭 Pasadena Playhouse 2016-2017 Season 🎭

The Pasadena Playhouse (FB) has just announced their 2016-2017 season, and it looks quite interesting. In fact, with The Colony Theatre (FB) going dark, we might just switch back to the Playhouse (if they can do a decent payment plan). Let’s look it over together, shall we?

  • Thumbs Up The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, directed by Seema Sueko. Sept. 6, 2016 to Oct. 2, 2016. I’ve seen two productions of The Fantasticks: a great Theatre West (FB) production and an even better Good People Theatre (FB) production. This is a very touching show which I’m growing to love. It should be interesting to see what the Playhouse can do with it.
  • Thumbs Up M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, directed by Bart DeLorenzo. Oct. 25, 2016 to Nov. 20, 2016. Winner of multiple Tony Awards including “Best Play” in 1988 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “M. Butterfly” is David Henry Hwang’s fictionalized account of an actual French diplomat who carried on an affair with a Peking opera star for twenty years, only to discover she was actually a man. I remember when this won the Tony and missed seeing it when it was at the Ahmanson.
  • Thumbs Up Shout, Sister, Shout! conceived and directed by Randy Johnson, book by Cheryl West. Jan. 31, 2017 to Feb. 26, 2017. A World Premiere musical conceived and directed by Randy Johnson, the creator of A Night With Janis Joplin. The musical depicts the life and music of legendary gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose hits include “Down by the Riverside,” “This Train,” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Given the style of music, this could be very interesting.
  • Thumbs Up Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. March 28, 2017 to April 23, 2017. No director stated. The press release states “a great way to return to the tradition of the Bard on our stage as The Pasadena Playhouse enters its 100th year.” One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, “Twelfth Night” features mistaken identities, gender confusion and separated twins, all obstacles to be overcome on the quest for true love. If they don’t muck with it, this could be good.
  • thumbs-side ARTISTIC DIRECTOR’S CHOICE. May 30, 2017– June 25, 2017. Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director of The Pasadena Playhouse, is on the hunt for the show he will direct for the last production of his final season as Artistic Director. Could be good, could be …

I’m not bothering to list the Pantos — I don’t care about those. I’ll explore subscribing when we’re there later in March.

🎭 New Jersey at the Fringe 🎭

The good folks at Good People Theatre (FB) have announced their Fringe musical:

We have exciting news! GPTCo is teaming up with Producer Alejandro Patino to bring you The Toxic Avenger Musical this June at Fringe! We will be at The Sacred Fools Space on Lillian Way. More info to come!

Posted by Good People Theater Company on Thursday, March 3, 2016

I’ve heard the music from this, and it is great. Should be a hoot, and I’m looking forward to it.

🎭 Yiddish Theatre in LA 🎭

Inside LA Stage History has a wonderful article up on the history of Yiddish Theatre and cabaret in LA. This includes the fact that the New Beverly theatre on Beverly Blvd (now owned by Quentin Tarentino) used to be a Yiddish Theatre, and is credited with the LA debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, as well as Phil Silvers, who worked there as an emcee.

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Assessing The Story Behind The Art

Waterfall (Pasadena Playhouse)userpic=pasadena-playhouseDid you ever look at a painting, and wonder about the story behind the painting? That was the question that Kulap Saipradit asked in his novel “Behind the Painting“, a story that is required reading in Thailand (from what I have seen on the Internet).  It was subsequently adapted into two Thai movies (1985 and 2001), and supposedly into a musical in Thailand (Khang Lang Parp). Richard Maltby. Jr. (Book and Lyrics) and David Shire (Music) have adapted this classic Thai story into a new musical, Waterfall, at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) (which we saw in a preview performance on Sunday night (May 31, 2015)). According to the program, the ultimate plans are for this musical to continue on to Broadway; it was in New York in early 2014 for a lab development reading. PS: The Jewish Journal has a great article on how this show came to America.

The original Thai story dealt with two Thai aristocrats in 1930s Japan and Thailand, who wrestle with their love for each other, and their duty to their family. The two protagonists are both involved in arranged relationships which they entered into out of duty to family and social class.  Maltby and Shire’s adaptation keeps the basic elements of the story, but tweaks the story for American audiences to have a young Thai student fall in love with the young American wife of a senior Thai diplomat. This occurs at the time when Siam was transitioning into Thailand, and becoming a democracy (which, alas, didn’t last). The senior Thai diplomat, who had been about to retire, was enticed to stay by an assignment as an envoy to America (where he married his wife). He was then presented with an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: negotiating an alliance between Siam/Thailand and Japan, in the years just before World War II.

In Maltby’s adaptation (I can’t speak to the original), there are two distinct threads: a political threat and a romantic threat; these two threads are tightly interwoven. The political thread I just mentioned; it primarily concerns Noppon, a young Thai student who starts out idolizing America; the older Siamese diplomatic envoy, Cho Khun Atikarn; and his younger wife, Katherine Briggs Atikarn. Noppon, upon graduation from Thai educational system, has been awarded a scholarship to study politics at a prestigious school in Japan. At the same time, Atikarn has been directed by the Siamese government to negotiate the first ever alliance treaty with Japan. Atikarn arrives in Japan, and Noppon is requested (because he speaks English) to escort Katherine during her visit to Japan. More on that later. The political negotiations start to get testy as Foreign Minister Takamota becomes increasingly anti-American, and Japan starts to exhibit its expansionist side. This creates difficulty in the negotiations; the negotiation break off completely when Atikarn is recalled to Siam to help stabilize the government.

Parallel to this story is the story of Noppon and Katherine. This is the big romantic story that is at the heart of the musical (and, indeed, the Thai variations of it have been at the heart of all productions based on the novel). Noppon, upon seeing Katherine, starts to fall in love. Katherine enjoys the attentions of a younger man, and continues to flirt with him as Atikarn’s work brings them to Kyoto. Noppon and Katherine see the sights in the city: the Tanabata Festival, the Taiko Display. Eventually, they take a tour to Mt. Mitake. There, in front of the waterfall, they dance (mmmm, and a little bit more).

This is where Act I ends. In Act II, we see Katherine and Atikarn leave abruptly for Siam, with Noppon left behind to be groomed for the diplomatic corps. He is head over heals with infatuation, and the sudden departure fractures him and forces him into his work. Katherine, on the other hand, is pragmatic. Flings are flings, and her duty is to her husband, the Ambassador. Noppon’s infatuation leads him to send a set of paints to Katherine, as she had mentioned she had painted when she was young. A few years later, Noppon is posted back to Thailand — and we get the reunion. It it what you might predict, or something else? I’ll leave the story there so as not to completely spoil it.

This brings us to where we started: a painting. Going back to the opening of the musical,  we see this painting being hung in a new house by Noppon. His wife comes by and says she doesn’t see what Noppon sees in the painting, which is a watercolor of the waterfall at Mr. Mitaki. In particular, she doesn’t understand why the title refers to dancers, when there are none in the picture. This is where Noppon smiles, indicates that he sees the dancers, and starts to relate to the audience the story above.

When dealing with a new musical — and the first big staging of a new musical — a number of areas require analysis: the book, the libretto, the performances, and the technical aspects of the presentation. I’ve described the story above; here are my thoughts on the book:

First and foremost, my mind kept contrasting this to The King and I. There are some parallels. The King and I takes place in the 1860s in Siam — less than 100 years before this story. In The King and I, we see some of the first stirrings of modern thinking struggling against Thai tradition. It is in these areas that Anna clashes with the King, but the King holds fast — it is his son that starts to bring in change. In Waterfall, we have a similar theme being echoed: Noppon (representing Siam’s youth) wants to be all things American. This clashes with Japan, which in the ramp up to WWII was rejecting the modernities of America in favor of the preservation of Japanese culture. When Katherine enters the picture, we begin to see the clash of American attitudes with Thai culture and traditions. We see this first in the reactions of Katherine’s servant, Nuan, to American outspokeness — and we see how Katherine wants to be more Thai. This, in turn, moves Noppon to place greater value in Thai culture… which then clashes with the new Thailand values, which wants to discard Thai culture in favor of the modern world and its Western approaches. This, then, is the culmination of the effort begun with the King’s son in The King and I.

I found the political side of the story fascinating (and I find myself seeing echoes of Pacific Overtures). I have never given much thought to the other countries in East Asia during WWII: were they on the side of Allies, or allied with the Axis? Here we see how Japan was growing ready for WWII, and had significant territorial ambitions. We also see how Thailand tried to straddle the middle (at least according to Noppon); it is unclear how what was presented near the epilogue jives with the truth.

This brings us to the romantic story. My wife found it mostly predictable. I didn’t. I thought it was going to go a particular direction (which the first act makes you want to happen), but then you see how a change in the characters changes that direction, and brings the romantic story to a different, but equally touching conclusions. However, I’m unsure how well this romantic story will play on the Broadway stage. It is certainly more interesting than Light in the Piazza, but given the current nature of Broadway I’m not sure that a romantic story would have a long run. This could be one of a string of Pasadena Playhouse musicals that make it to Broadway, only to have their runs fizzle out. The track record speaks for itself: Baby Its You, Sister Act, A Night with Janis Joplin. I still think they should have brought the excellent Mask to Broadway.

But overall, I liked the book. It wasn’t the immediate grab of a Hairspray or The Book of Mormon, but it wasn’t a failure either.

Next, let’s look at the liberetto — the music and lyrics. I tend to like Maltby / Shire musicals — Baby has a wonderful score, and despite it’s problems there are some great songs in Big. Maltby and Shire also know how to write great story and romantic songs — just look at the revue Closer than Ever. The score for Waterfall is one of the most integrated scores I’ve seen from the team. There are a number of songs I liked as I heard them (alas, it is hard to remember them afterwards — I’d need a cast album). They also had songs that were primarily sung in other languages, both Japanese and Thai. I cannot speak to how well they preserved or captured traditional Thai or Japanese musical stylings. But the songs were beautiful, and well executed by the performers. One thing I did notice was that there were just a few musical motifs; they kept being repurposed for similar songs with similar themes (this is best illustrated by the series of “I Am” songs: “I Am Not Thai”, “I Will Be Thai”; or the “I Like” songs: “I Like Americans”, “I Like the Japanese”, “I Hate the Siamese”).

This brings us to the performances. Before I go into the individual performances, I must comment on what this show says about the lack of diversity in the American theatre, and the lack of suitable dramatic vehicles for Asian actors. In reading the credits, the same shows tended to be listed — shows that are (almost stereotypically) Asian: The King and I, Flower Drum Song, Miss Saigon, Pacific Overtures. I think there need to be more shows that provide the opportunity for Asian actors. What East-West Players does is just a start. Of course, things are not helped by the set of Equity actors, which tend to be overwhelmingly of a common hue. This leads to the next casting complaint: Casting directors that seem to think that all Asians look alike. For those who know, there are distinct differences between the various Asian ethnicities, and the Asian casting here was a mix of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and probably some I couldn’t distinguish. I find this demonstrates a commentary on the acting pool: it indicates there are insufficient actors of a particular group to properly staff the show. This is something the theatre community needs to combat: we need to encourage more diversity in the acting pool (and diverse stories to employ them). [This is where 99 seat theatre demonstrates its importance: it is that stepping stone for non-traditional actors to grow in their craft; the large paying productions cannot employ sufficient ethnic actors and tend to create a high bar to entry.]

In the lead positions were Bie Sukrit (FB) as Noppon and Emily Padgett (FB) as Katherine. This was Sukrit’s first appearance on an American stage — he is evidently a pop star in Thailand — and he came across as the equal to the other Equity actors sharing the stage. I initially found his accent required close listening, but as I got used to it there was no problem. He did, however, need greater amplification to equal Padgett and to overpower the orchestra (hopefully, this will be fixed by opening night). As for Padgett — what a lovely voice, almost operatic. It was well suited for the music, and blended well with Sukrit’s lighter voice. Both did a great job of bringing the characters to life in a way that you believed they were who they were, and that they were reflecting the emotions that the story required. I’d try to name particular songs that they excelled at, but they were all great.

In major supporting positions were Thom Sesma (FB) (Chao Khun Atikarn), J. Elaine Marcos (FB) (Nuan), and as Noppon’s college friends, Jordan De Leon (FB) (Santi, Ensemble), Colin Miyamoto (FB) (Surin), and Lisa Helmi Johanson (FB) (Kumiko, Ensemble). Again, all were excellent. I was particularly taken with the presence that Sesma had as Atikarn — he gave off a wonderful diplomatic flair, and had a lovely singing voice. Marcos, as Nuan, captured the culture clash well and was particularly enjoyable in the number “I Will Be Thai”. Lastly, of Noppon’s college friends, I particularly enjoyed Johanson’s Kumiko, who captured well both the joy and angst of being an Asian who was an American in the period before WWII. This came across extremely well in the song “America Will Break Your Hear”, as well as “Music to my Ears”.

Notable smaller supporting characters were Steven Eng (FB) (Foreign Minister Takamoto) and Marcus Choi (FB) (Thai Minister, Japanese Attaché, Ensemble), both who were great in their songs “I Like Americans” and “I Hate the Siamese” (respectively). Eng was particularly menacing in his role; this is a good thing given the nature of the role. Rounding out the cast were: Eymard Cabling (FB) (Siamese Ambassador, Ensemble), Rona Figueroa (FB) (Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kimberly Immanuel (FB) (Pree, Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Leon Le (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Koh Mochizuki (FB) (Taiko Drummer, Ensemble), Celia Mei Rubin (FB) (Ensemble), Darryl Semira (FB) (Ensemble, Dance Captain), Riza Takahashi (FB) (Yamaguchi Sister, Ensemble), Kay Trinidad (FB) (Ensemble), and Minami Yusui (FB) (Ensemble).  I’ll note that Figueroa, Immanuel, and Takahashi sounded lovely together in “Music to my Ears”.

As previously noted, the show featured lyrics by Richard Maltby. Jr. and music by David Shire. Music supervision and additional arrangements were by John McDaniel (FB), with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick (FB). Mark Hartman (FB) was the associate conductor. McDaniel and Hartman conducted the 13 piece orchestra consisting of Christian Regul (FB) [Keyboard 2], David Witham (FB) [Keyboard Swing], Greg Huckins (FB) [Reed 1], Sean Franz (FB) [Reed 2], Bill Wood (FB) [Bassoon], Nathan Campbell [French Horn], Marissa Benedict (FB) [Trumpet], Mark Converse (FB) [Percussion], Trey Henry [Bass], Carrie Holtzman-Little and Jody Rubin  [Viola], and Rebecca Merblum (FB) and Stan Sharp [Cello]. The orchestra produced a lovely sound, which was notable for its inclusion of traditional Thai and Japanese instruments, such as the Ranat Ek, a curved, xylophone-like instrument.

Movement was choreographed by Dan Knechtges (FB), assisted by Jessica Hartman (Associate Choreographer). Dance music arrangements were by Greg Jarrett. The movement and dance was visually delightful, especially the numbers that incorporated traditional Thai and Japanese dance movements and motifs. There were also a number of moments of traditional ballroom and modern swing dancing (reflecting 1930s style) that were great. I will note that the kneepads were visible in a number of dance numbers; that could be visually distracting for some. Darryl Semira (FB) was the Dance Captain.

Waterfall was directed by Tak Viravan (FB); Dan Knechtges (FB) was the co-director, and Kenneth Ferrone (FB) was the Associate Director. I’ll note that Viravan, in conjunction with the producer, Jack M. Dalgleish, were the primary drivers on bringing the show to America, and the Dalgleish was the one who reached out to Maltby/Shire to adapt the show for an American audience. I’ve noted before how I have difficulty seeing where the director stops and the actor begins, and so I tend to credit the actor. I’ll credit the director here for the vision that was realized, and for capturing the little things from that culture. This was particularly apparent in the interactions with Nuan, who was very deferential and submission, which made her hesitancy later on speaking up much stronger. Management was provided by the following team: Andrew Neal (FB) [Production Stage Manager], Lucy Kennedy (FB) [Assistant Stage Manager], Heather “Red” Verhoef [Production Manager/Assistant Stage Manager], Joe Witt [General Manager], Kristen Hammack (FB) [Producing Associate / Company Manager].

Lastly, let’s consider the technical side. The Pasadena Playhouse is blessed with a large flyspace, large wings on both sides, and a deep stage. Sasavat (Ja) Busayabandh, the scenic designer made good use of this space for scenic elements that flew down (Christine Peters was the Associate Scenic Designer). However, the main scenic elements were walls with rough jagged edges that slid left and right, seemingly like textured stone walls. Against these walls, projections designed by Caite Havner Kemp [Projection Designer] were used to establish locale. I recently listened to a Producer’s Perspective podcast with director Scott Schwartz where he opined that he didn’t like heavy use of projections; he felt they were a cost-saving crutch and preferred real theatrical designs. Yet these projections worked against the walls; they were particularly noteworthy during the painting scene of the Waterfall where you could see how the watercolors interacted to form the picture. Most of the other scenic elements were a bit simpler; I’ll note that the set piece for the waterfall was notable in its use of real running water on stage that was splashed around (something you rarely see). Overall, the scenic design worked well for the Playhouse space. It also interacted well with Ken Billington‘s lighting design. This design was noteworthy for its used of the color palette, in particular the washes used against the rear cyclorama. The costumes (designed by Wade Laboissonniere) and hair, wigs and makeup (designed by J. Jared Janas) seemed appropriately period; I don’t have the expertise to speak to whether the traditional Japanese and Thai costumes were correct (they appeared correct to my Western eye, but what do I know?). I particularly enjoyed the dresses worn by Katherine (Emily Padgett (FB)) and Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson (FB)), which were both beautiful, flattering to the actors, and fit in the late 30s time period. Lastly, the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier was mostly clear; there were a few microphone static problems that I presume will be corrected by the official opening (this was a particular problem in the waterfall scene). As noted before, Bie needed some additional amplification. Additional design and related credits: Brad Enlow [Technical Director], Stewart/Whitley (FB) [Casting].

According to the main credit page, Waterfall was produced by the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) under the artistic direction of Sheldon Epps, in association with the 5th Avenue Theatre (FB) in Seattle (which will present Waterfall in the fall of 2015). Articles on the show indicate that eventual producers will be the director (Tak Viravan)’s producing business, Scenario Company, in conjunction with Jack M. Dalgleish.

Waterfall continues at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), formally opening on June 7, 2015 and running until June 28, 2015. If you’re a fan of new musicals, or of Maltby/Shire musicals, or of Asian culture, this is especially well worth seeing. Tickets are available online through the Pasadena Playhouse website. Discount tickets may be available through special Pasadena Playhouse programs, Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, and other common outlets.

One last note regarding Waterfall — in particular, about the Waterfall audience. Sheldon Epps, the Artistic Director of the Playhouse, is well known for pushing diversity on stage. When we were subscribing at the Playhouse, this meant that there were a fair number of African-American themed plays. I always bemoaned the fact that the complexion of the audience would change for those plays; there was a distinct color shift I found disturbing. My disturbance wasn’t due to the black audiences — I want diverse and younger audiences discovering and coming to theatre. My disturbance was more the absence of the typical audience of non-color 🙂 — why were they avoiding the play (I’m similarly disturbed about the fact that the audiences of color don’t come to traditional plays). The same shift was notable in the Waterfall audience — it skewed much more Asian than the typical Playhouse audience. As a result, I must make the comment I always make: Theatre is like music — it is either good or bad. It is not “Asian”, it is not “Black”, it is not “White”. It reflects and comments on situations that are set in a wide variety of communities. Audiences must make an effort to go to a wide variety of theatre that reflects diverse experience, and not only the shows that reflect their particular ethnic experience. This permits theatre to do its job, moving people to learn and think about how people react in various situations. End soapbox.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: June will be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) Camenot at the Complex Theatres (FB) (Clybourne Park was cancelled) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and  Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend brings “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) [and may also bring The History Boys at the Stella Adler Lab Theatre (FB) (I’m considering it)].  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August starts with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), and is followed by the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Thoughts on a Theatre Season: Pasadena Playhouse / Theatricum Botanicum

userpic=theatre_musicalsTime for another post looking at theatre season announcements. Today’s post is triggered by the recent announcements of the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) season and the Theatricum Botanicum Seasons.

Pasadena Playhouse

We used to be long-time subscribers at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We weren’t treated well during the bankruptcy itself, and choose to move our mid-side theatre subscription to The Colony Theatre (FB) in Burbank. We’ve enjoyed the productions at the Colony, although they are not that adventurous or likely to move on to bigger and better things (you want adventurous productions that may move on, explore LA’s 99 Seat Theatre scene — which is threatened by AEA — learn more at http://ilove99.org). As for the Pasadena Playhouse, we haven’t much liked Sheldon’s programming — and especially the TBA slot. Still, we’re planning on one show this season there. So let’s see what they are proposing:

  • Thumbs Down Real Women Have Curves. Written by Josefina López. Directed by Seema Sueko. September 8 – October 4, 2015. This is taking a movie and moving it onstage. This can work (and draw audiences), but isn’t that particularly exciting to me… especially as a straightforward drama.
  • Thumbs Down Breaking Through. Book by Kirsten Guenther. Music and Lyrics by Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz. Directed by Sheldon Epps. October 27 – November 22, 2015.  A new musical from a team that hasn’t done musicals before. That may or may not be bad — sometimes it works, sometimes it fails miserably. The story is about a young, talented singer/songwriter, as she tries to navigate the treacherous shark-­‐filled waters of the music business with a a compelling journey to find her way back to her authentic self and in the process rediscovers the music that truly makes her alive. Isn’t that Beautiful or any of a myriad of other shows? Not a compelling story.
  • Thumbs Down Peter Pan and Tinkerbell: A Pirate Christmas. By Kris Lythgoe. Directed by Bonnie Lythgoe. Musical Direction by Michael Orland. Choreography by Spencer Liff. December 9, 2015– January 3, 2016. British Christmas Panto. I’m sorry, but I’m generally not into Christmas-specific shows.
  • thumbs-side Fly. By Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. Directed by Ricardo Khan. Produced in Association with Crossroads Theatre Company. January 26 – February 21, 2016. Fly tells the story of the first African-­‐ American Army Air Corp fighters known as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew over the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II. Sigh. This is one of Sheldon’s shows designed to bring in an audience of color. I used to see these every year, and was disappointed that the audience didn’t remain around for other shows (or that the white audience disappeared for these shows). Potentially interesting, but not a must-see. All depends on what else is out around then.
  • Thumbs Up Casa Valentina. By Harvey Fierstein. Directed by David Lee. March 15 – April 10, 2016. Per the description: this moving and insightful play is nestled in the Catskills in 1962 -­‐ land of dirty dancing and borscht belt comedy.  But an inconspicuous bungalow colony is more than a place to escape the sweltering summer heat.  For a group of heterosexual men it is a place to escape something else entirely: being men. Interesting for the director and the playwright. Not sure that it draws me in fully, but this might be good.
  • thumbs-side ARTISTIC DIRECTOR’S CHOICE. To Be Announced. May 31 – June 26, 2015. Otherwise known as the Sheldon CYA slot. I’m not going to commit myself if he can’t.

Not a season that excites me.

***

Theatricum Botanicum

We’re not subscribers here, but we tend to see a show here and there, if it is interesting. As Theatricum Botanicum (FB) wrote:

The upcoming ‘Americana’ season includes William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, re-set in the Reconstruction-era South with live music of the period; To Kill A Mockingbird, Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ biting portrait of the dysfunctional American family at its finest — and absolute worst; and Green Grow the Lilacs, the play by Lynn Riggs that inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. Finally, what could be more American than an outing to experience Theatricum’s signature production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, back for the ninth year in a row by popular demand? Audiences flock to this annual family favorite, a beguiling romantic comedy set in Theatricum’s own Topanga forest.

These all run in repertory through the summer. My thoughts:

  • Thumbs Up As You Like It. Seen a number of adaptations of this, including a disasterous one at the Pasadena Playhouse (the only show I’ve walked out on). The era and setting of this sound interesting.
  • Thumbs Down To Kill a Mockingbird. Great play, but I just saw it within the last couple of years at Repertory East. Given how crowded the summer is, I’m not sure it is worth squeezing in.
  • Thumbs Up August: Osage County. A classic play, worth seeing if I can squeeze it in.
  • Thumbs Up Green Grow the Lilacs. This is one I’d really like to see — the basis for Oklahoma. I’ve always heard about it.
  • Thumbs Down A Midsummers Night Dream. This one will be around again, so I’ll skip this time.

They only have seasons subscriptions up, so I’ll either have to remember to put HOLD dates or watch Goldstar.

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The Man Behind the Face

Stoneface (Pasadena Playhouse)userpic=pasadena-playhouseRecently, Carla Laemmle died. She was one of the last living links to the first era of motion pictures — the silent movie era. Most of today’s youth can hardly imagine the impact of these short, black and white, soundless (but for a piano accompaniment) images on the screen, but in their day… they defined and created stars. There were romantic and dramatic stars, but some of the best known were the comedians: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Norman, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton. Some big stage shows have been made for some — there have been at least two musical version’s of Chaplin’s life story, and Norman’s romance with Mack Sennet was the basis for Mack and Mabel. Others have languished in obscurity. Recently, Sacred Fools Theatre had a well-received production of a play with musical accompaniment about the life of Buster Keaton. This play was written by Vanessa Claire Stewart (FB), as a birthday present for her husband, French Stewart (FB), of 3rd Rock and Mom fame, who has the lead role as Buster Keaton (his idol). For the 2013-2014 season, the Pasadena Playhouse announced a remounting of this show, and it was the only show in their season I found interesting. So guess where I was last night? Yup, we were back at our old haunt, the Pasadena Playhouse, seeing Buster Keaton on screen and stage.

So who is Buster Keaton. Many may remember him from his last role: He played Erroneous in the screen version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum“. But he is best known for his long string of silent movies with well-timed gags starting in 1917, and he made (on average) at least one movie a year until 1966. But all weren’t successes. He had two unsuccessful marriages and a significant drinking problem that derailed his career in the mid-1930s, and his career limped along until he was rediscovered in the 1950s for the genius that he was. His bio at IMDB makes interesting reading.

Stoneface” attempts to tell much of Keaton’s life story. It begins with Keaton at his first drug rehab in 1933 when he is with his second wife, Mae. His story is then told in flashbacks: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister of Norma Talmadge), his friendship and professional relationship with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, his relationship with Joseph Schenck (his producer) and his long line of successful films, the disastrous financial failure of “The General“, the sale of his contract to MGM and his poor relationship with Louis B. Mayer. It also explores his battle with alcoholism, his failure at relationships with his first wife (Natalie) and the loss of his children, and the scandal related to his friend, Roscoe Arbuckle. It shows the period where he had lost his timing and made horrible shorts just to survive. But it also shows his sobering up, his successful relationship with his third (and final) wife, his comeback with Chaplin in 1951’s “Limelight”, and his receiving a special Oscar for his life’s work in comedy. In general, the story worked — although I wish they had mentioned that his final speech actually was at the Oscars, and mentioned his final role in Forum.

The way the production was done was very interesting. There were many scenes that were, essentially, silent movies on stage. There was the occasional projected subtitle, but all the action was silent (often with Keaton’s style of comedy) with piano accompaniment. These scenes were excellent, and Stewart seemed to have quite a bit of fun with them, capturing Keaton’s style quite well. Other scenes were more expositional — conventional scenes in which the story played out. These scenes were a bit more problematic — not because of the writing, but because Stewart seemed a bit off with the occasional line hesitation and restart that impacted his timing. His supporting players, however, were excellent.

This production started at the Sacred Fools Theatre, an under 99-seat venue in Hollywood. At the Playhouse, it was in a 686 seat auditorium. There are those who claim that the production lost something in the transfer to the larger venue. Having not seen it in the smaller venue, I can’t speak to that assessment. I can see, however, how the magic and the performance would have had more oomph in a more intimate venue. I found the production worked at the Playhouse for me; however I think a production like this would be lost at the Ahmanson or Pantages. If it wasn’t for the difficulty in working the scenery, the Colony would be a great venue.

As noted above, French Stewart (FB) had the lead position as Buster Keaton. He captured Keaton’s persona and mannerisms quite well, especially in the silent and physical comedy scenes, but had the occasional line problem in the expositional scenes. Looking at his Facebook, this could be the four-show weekends getting to him; this was near the end of the run. But this does seem to be a character that he really enjoys playing and inhabiting, and it is worth seeing for his performance.

The remaining cast members are strong, but there are some worthy of particular note. Tegan Ashton Cohan (FB), as Natalie Talmadge (as well as part of the ensemble), has an extended sequence with Stewart where she attempts to get him sitting in a chair. The physical comedy in this sequence is spectacular.  There is a similar sequence with Daisy Eagan (FB) as Mae Scriven, his second wife. There is also some good physical comedy with Joe Fria (FB) as the young Buster Keaton; Scott Leggett (FB) is great as Roscoe Arbuckle in the opening sequence of Act II. The rest of the actors handle their roles well, and are remarkable in their interactions with the special effects — in particular, the effect of walking behind a screen and suddenly being in the silent movie. Rounding out the cast were Jake Broder (FB) (Joseph Schenck), Rena Strober (FB) (Norma Talmadge / Eleanor Keaton), Pat Towne (FB) (Louis B. Mayer), Conor Duffy (FB) (Edward Sedgwick / George Jessel), and Guy Picot (FB) (Charlie Chaplin).

The production was directed by Jaime Robledo (FB), who was very clever at providing the production a silent-movie feel, including the aforementioned scenes where the actors go behind a screen and are suddenly in the projected image, or longer scenes that are done entirely as silent movies. These were extremely clever and enjoyable. I’ll note the entire production was helped by the great rinky-tinky piano accompaniment of Ryan Johnson (FB).

This is one show where the technical makes the show. The scenic design of Joel Daavid (FB) was spectacular and truly brought the silent film era of the 1920s to life. This resurrection of the period was aided and abeted by the costumes of Jessica Olson (FB) and the wigs of Jessica Mills (FB). As for the lighting, Jeremy Pivnick (FB) did some things I’ve never seen before, including a moving light on a track in the upper fly space that itself had a moving mirror. The sound by the wonderful Cricket S. Myers (FB) was mostly wonderful — in particular the silent movie projector sound during the projections. However, the music behind Keaton and Arbuckle in the bar scenes was just loud enough to be distracting — in fact, I thought it might be coming from the bar outside. As noted before, projections make this show, and much of the credit goes to Ben Rock (FB) and Anthony Backman (FB) and technical director Brad Enlow. Mike Mahaffey (FB) was the fight director. Susie Walsh was the production stage manager; Hethyr “Red” Verhoef was the stage manager, and Kristen Hammack/FB was the company manager.

Stoneface: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Buster Keaton” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) through June 29.  Tickets are available through the Playhouse box office, and discount tickets are available through Goldstar.

The Pasadena Playhouse is promoting their 2014-2015 season, but I’m not biting. The season consists of a variation of “Kiss Me Kate” transporting to the mileau of black vaudeville of the early 20th century (umm, no); “Stop Kiss” by Diana Son, a holiday Panto of Sleeping Beauty, “Two for the Seesaw” by William Gibson, “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, and Sheldon’s favorite show, “TBD”, which he does every season. Of these, the only one interesting me is “Two for the Seesaw“, and that’s primarily because it is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing the musical “Seesaw“, which was based on that play.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  We finish off June with “I’m Not Just a Comic Genius” at Secret Rose (FB) on June 27. July will be busy: “Ghost” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/5, “Return to the Forbidden Planet” at REP East (FB) the weekend of 7/12, “Once” at the Pantages (FB) on 7/19, “Bye Bye Birdie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on 7/26, and “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. August then remains quiet as we work around vacations and such (but I’m eyeing a number of productions in Escondido, including Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town. What they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads. Things start to get busy again in September and October, with “The Great Gatsby” at REP, “What I Learned in Paris” at the Colony, and “Pippin” at the Pantages. More on that later. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.

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Mothers Day News Chum Stew

Observation StewYou know you want to take your mother to dinner. But what will you talk about? Here’s a bunch of news chum stew items, accumulated over the last two weeks (I’ve been busy, what can I say) that might just do:

  • Size Matters. Here’s a great discussion topic for your mom… or for “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. A recent study has shown that, the larger your penis, the greater the likelihood that your wife will cheat on you. In particular, according to this study, every one inch longer penis increased the likelihood of women being involved in extra-marital partnership by almost one-and-half times. I think I’ll leave the subject at that and go on to the next subject…
  • Got Gas? Here’s some more useful information. Remember “Beans Beans They’re Good for the Heart”. Well, it turns out that lots of gas is a sign of a healthy biome in your gut. This reminds me of a joke from Jason Alexander. It seems there was this long married couple whose sex life was in the dumps (see item #1). The wife went to a sex counselor, who suggested they try 69. She came home and explained it to her husband. They got in bed and in the position…. and she ripped a good one. After the air had cleared, they tried it again… and she ripped another one. They were about to try it again when the husband said, “you think I’m going to do this 67 more times, you’re crazy”.
  • It’s the Place To Be. Yup, that Farm Living is the life for me. If this makes you think of Green Acres, you’re not along. There are plans for a Broadway stage play adaptation of the hicksville TV show originally starring Eddie Albert and Eva GaborThe rights to the property were acquired by director Richard L. Bare, who was one of the most prolific helmers on the original series, and by producer Phillip Goldfine through his production company Hollywood Media Bridge.
  • Cramming It In. Sony is working on new technology that will cram 3,700 blue-rays into a single cassette tape. Actually, that’s a little misleading — we’re not talking here about a C-60 or a C-90, but a specially designed cartridge. Still, the technology is intriguing: a whopping 148 GB per square inch, meaning a cassette could hold 185 TB of data. Sony uses a vacuum-forming technique called sputter deposition to create a layer of magnetic crystals by shooting argon ions at a polymer film substrate. The crystals, measuring just 7.7 nanometers on average, pack together more densely than any other previous method. The result is that three Blu-Rays’ worth of data can fit on one square inch of Sony’s new wonder-tape.
  • A Touching Story. Here’s a very touching story about a late night encounter in a supermarket, told by Mark Evanier.
  • Anything But Starbucks. A touching obituary for Herman Hyman, founder of the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf chain. This chain, which roasts its beans in Ventura County, started in a small store on San Vicente Blvd in Brentwood in the 1970s. I think, in fact, that it started not far from my first condo.
  • Buildings Up, Buildings Down. Two interesting buildings in the news. First, the plans have been announced for the former furniture store space across from the Pasadena Playhouse. Should be an interesting project; it will be interesting to see how it changes the character of that area. In Las Vegas news, approval has been given to finally take down the Harmon. If you aren’t familiar with the Harmon, it is the oval blue-glass coated skyscraper next to the Aria and Vdara, across from Planet Hollywood and the Cosmopolitan. It was built wrong and is unstable, but they can’t implode it because it is too close to other stuff. They have to take it down piece by piece. Now if only they could do something with the Fountainbleau, which is an even bigger eyesore on the N end of the strip (where the Thunderbird once was).

 

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